“Don’t bury your head in the sand and make the same mistakes I made and cause your body further damage in the future.”
That’s the powerful warning from a young diabetes patient who had to have major organ transplants in her 20s after neglecting her treatment.
Emily Hardwick from Wednesfield, 28, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 11.
But the mother of one became so ill after struggling to manage her diabetes and control her blood sugars that over the next decade and a half, she was constantly ill, her eyesight started failing and she needed a kidney and pancreas transplant.
The latter involved a two-year wait and a nine-hour operation, and, five months on, fortnightly check ups and the prospect of future waits for a matched transplants if she’s lucky.
“I started on insulin therapy twice a day and was asked to test my blood sugars and prick my finger four times,” said Emily, who works as a payroll consultant.
“I’d heard the word injections and as an 11-year-old, the thought of that is quite scary. So I was worried more than anything.”
Coping with the condition proved quite challenging to come to terms with. “I was quite poorly when I was diagnosed so I was in hospital for the first few weeks,” she recalled.
“Then it was a case of adjusting my diet, finding out what foods I could and couldn’t eat.
“Informing the school and speaking to other people about it were probably the scariest things.”
Emily, who has been treated at Walsall Manor Hospital as she used to live in Coppice Farm, near Willenhall before having her dialysis at Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital, admits she struggled to adapt to her condition and ended up ignoring it because of the challenges it brought.
“I think I thought I’d get used to it but I don’t think I ever came to terms with it,” she admitted.
“I’d cause arguments with siblings and parents, telling them to leave me to do it in my own time, but that time never really came.”
As her diabetes routine became more complex, Emily admits she became overwhelmed by the requirements.
“When I was taking insulin twice a day, I could cope with that,” she said. “But when they switched me to the flexible insulin regime where you had to carb count and work out how much insulin to give, I found it really difficult.
“There were occasions where I missed insulin doses and didn’t test my blood for a number of days and I ended up in hospital on a number of occasions with diabetic ketoacidosis.
“This is a serious, life-threatening condition caused by high blood glucose levels and that led to high ketone levels through not taking my insulin.”
Other problems emerged as a result of neglecting her treatment.
“During those times I was really poorly and had to go on a drip,” said Emily. “For a number of years on and off I was ill, then my eyesight and my kidneys started deteriorating.
“I ended up having to have retinopathy (where the blood vessels in the back of the eye become damaged and it can lead to sight loss) which included laser treatment and injections to my eyes.
“I also had renal failure, which meant I had to go on dialysis for two years while I was on the transplant waiting list for a kidney and pancreas.
“The treatment was really restricting. Dialysis is overnight, every night for eight hours at home, so once you’re hooked up to the machine, you can’t leave that room.
“Then you go once a month to have your weight and blood pressure checked to ensure everything is OK so you can have your transplant.”
Other lifestyle restrictions included being called in to have the operation only for it to be cancelled – four times, which can be normal with transplants, for different reasons.
“When it eventually did go ahead, it was a nine-hour operation and I was in hospital for two weeks, but I know people that have been in for a lot longer,” said Emily.
“I was really lucky to have this opportunity. The kidney and pancreas are both working well at the moment, but there are people in hospital whose operations didn’t work.”
Emily is also faced with the reality that her transplanted organs will have to be replaced, if she is fortunate enough to have a further transplant, and is lucky enough to find the right match.
“They try to get five years out of a pancreas and 10 out of a kidney,” she added. “Then you either have to go back to the regimes you were on, or if you’re lucky enough, you can rejoin the waiting list to have more organs.
“When I was in hospital, I was the only one in a bay of four whose pancreas transplant actually worked.
“I’m five months down the line now and I’m still at hospital every fortnight having my weight and blood pressure assessed, and constantly tracking the medication to make sure it’s at the right level.
“There is a higher risk of illness and infection from the anti-rejection medication that lowers your immune system, as well as skin cancer, following the transplant.
“That’s a worry when you’re going out – you think ‘am I covered up, have I got sun cream on, have I got my medication?’”
Emily, who has an eight-year-old daughter, has a powerful message for those who might think it’s easier to skip their diabetes medication.
“Diabetes is a really difficult condition to manage. But don’t bury your head in the sand and make the same mistakes I made and cause your body further damage in the future,” she insisted.
“There are healthcare organisations such as Diabetes UK that can help. Listen to the people around you, such as healthcare professionals and your family, because they’re telling you these things for a reason.”
Contact Diabetes UK by visiting www.diabetes.org.uk online, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call their confidential helpline on 0345 123 2399.